Thursday, October 12, 2017

Something Lurking in the Gym

Last Saturday I almost came to blows with an African American dad while I watched my white grandson play pick-up basketball. I have written before about how race sometimes “lurks” in our interactions. This race-laden incident threatened to steal the joy and spirit of our regular Saturday mornings at the gym.

Some context: Every Saturday morning when my white wife, Laura; my white grandson, Damon; and I walk into Coleman Community Center, I am reminded of the history told to me by Doug Williams. Doug is a white administrator at a local state university. Years ago when I was out of work he agreed to meet with me for an informational interview. He ended up granting me way more than the 20 minutes I asked for.

Doug talked about growing up in the 1960s. He had graduated from Glencliff High School the year before the all-white school was forced to integrate. Doug told me about the time in his high school years that he received a phone call at home. His mother answered the call and hailed him to the corded phone in the kitchen. When Doug arrived in the kitchen, Mom, with her hand over the phone, whispered, “He says it’s Leroy.”

“Okay,” Doug said.
“Who’s Leroy?”
“I’ve told you about Leroy. We play basketball together.”
“Is he… a Negro?”
“You never told me he was a Negro.”
“I didn’t know it mattered.”

Doug told me that during the segregated Glencliff/Coleman community of youth, the only place black teens and white teens interacted was in the gym at Coleman Community Center. The center was the place that Doug regularly played basketball with black guys.

The Glencliff/Coleman community has grown much more multicultural in more recent years. Glencliff High is an international center. Coleman Community Center also reflects that diversity…except in the gym.

When Laura, Damon and I arrive at the center on Saturday mornings, we observe a predictable scene in the gym. There are often single players each claiming one of the six goals, while being trained by a dad or a personal trainer. Players and trainers are all black.

Damon and I usually find an open goal and play one-on-one before others arrive, especially if Akam, the Kurdish eighth grader, hasn’t arrived yet. We might get in a game of two-on-two or three-on-three before the high schoolers and young men arrive. It varies week to week, most Saturdays, except for Damon and Akam, all of the gym-dwellers are African American.

Damon has earned the respect of all of the players. The boys have fun. There are the usual disputes about who knocked the ball out or whether someone was fouled. Most of the time the offender knows he is wrong, and sometimes laughter ensues. Disputes are resolved quickly; everyone just wants to get back to playing. And when the games are over, there are fist-bumps and high-fives all around and promises of “See you next week.”

Last week I was watching the boys play five-on-five. I looked up and saw a familiar African American dad, who had been coming with his son the past three weeks. In those weeks I had struck up conversations with him. We had recognized each other because I had taught his eighth grade son when the boy was a sweet first grader.

On this day I tapped the dad on the shoulder and said, “Hey.” He barely looked at me and grunted. A few minutes later he turned to me and started badmouthing Damon under the guise of “coaching.” The smirk on his face betrayed his real meaning. While his son strutted and taunted on the court, I decided to return (grand)parental fire (because I am such a calm and gracious guy). I commented on his son’s “attitude” on the court.

So it was ON. This dad is a big guy, and he thought (I assume) that if he abruptly moved closer to me while spewing, I would be intimidated. He didn’t know that I am both too old and too young to be intimidated. After a heated exchange of words, I eventually walked out of the gym.

When I came back with a calmer demeanor, the dad just started talking smack every time his son came up with a good play or Damon missed a shot. I was sitting behind and away from said dad, so he had to turn around to keep making his comments. I finally asked him to stop talking to me. He asserted his right to say whatever he wanted to. My loving wife encouraged me several times to not engage him at all.

The game ended, and his victorious son unleashed this lengthy angry taunt into the gym. It was unlike anything we’ve seen in the weeks we have been playing light-hearted Saturday morning pick-up basketball. Ignoring my wise wife, I turned to the dad and said, “That’s the attitude I’m talking about.” I honestly don’t remember what else transpired before we were up in each other’s faces, but a shouting match ensued.  And management came. I took another walk.

While outside I spoke to another African American dad, whom we had befriended in earlier weeks. One week he had asked Damon to play one-on-one offense so that his son could work on his defense. On this Saturday, I asked this dad if he had witnessed the scene I had just caused. He hadn’t. I apologized for it anyway. Then he said, “You know, in days like these it is disappointing when we start at EACH OTHER like this. It’s enough to have to deal with that treatment in general society. You would think that at least WE could keep it together.” He meant, of course “we black folk.” It was lament, not criticism.

The rest of the of the conversation was typical. We talked more about our boys and their basketball experiences. Then, newly calm, I returned to the gym.

The “my boy/your boy” conversation is one I have had with dozens of parents. Three weeks ago I launched into that conversation with Dad #1.  But whenever I complimented his kid, he criticized Damon.

So why was this dad all focused on Damon? He made no comments about any other kid out there. And in three weeks he and his son had become increasingly anti-social, and the son had become increasingly angry on the court. Aside from Damon’s obvious talent, I can think of only one reason he was singled out for this constant criticism. It was something lurking.

By the middle of the first five-on-five game last week, Damon didn’t want to play anymore, but, as he told his Meemaw, “I wasn’t gonna go out like that.”  He finished the game, and his team handily won the next game. Still Damon was disturbed.

I own my part in the drama. The following week the whole scenario occupied a lot of my thought life. I first apologized to Damon and then tried to encourage him, “We can’t let them steal the joy of our Saturday mornings. We do this for fun. Don’t let them take this from us.” But I had no idea how I could instruct my own emotions before the next Saturday. I did pray. I did consider whether we should show up at all. I did think of what I wanted to say to reconcile with this dad, but it would all be built on how wrong HE was. And I had already committed to a wise woman that I would not speak to the man at all.

I did go over the past three weeks in my mind trying to figure out what went wrong before I had decided to “return fire.” And why was I so inconsolable after the incident?

I think the discomfort was based in something more than immediate. It drew on the historical romance I had been told about Coleman/Glencliff. It was the sense that this place of peace, this place of community against the cultural odds, was being turned into a place of conflict. And the battle was engaged against me and my grandson for no respectable reason.

By week’s end, my emotional energy had dissipated and I had pictured for myself how I would act. First, I would get back out on the court myself. No-one can take the game too seriously when I am on the court.

As it turned out dad and son didn’t show. I don’t think anyone spoke of them or of our incident. But there was a palpable relief hanging in the air. The boys were lighter than usual. They played hard, but they laughed as hard as they played. And there were fist-bumps and high-fives.

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